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Review: ‘Shuffle Along,’ Broadway musical, is messy but exhilarating

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The "Shuffle Along" ensemble performs "Broadway Blues" in the Broadway musical. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

There’s a debate on Broadway over whether “Shuffle Along” — or, to use its full title, “Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed” — is a new musical or a revival.

Whether old or new, it is a hot mess of the highest caliber — a dazzling and dizzying documentary mixed with star turns, syncopated rhythms, stylish attire, fierce tap-dancing and weak subplots.

“Shuffle Along” was the most successful musical to be written, directed and performed by African-Americans in the early 20th century. It contained jazzy songs by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” What playwright-director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover have put together is an inventive behind-the-scenes exploration of the show’s creation.

The starry cast includes Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter (“Kinky Boots”), Brandon Victor Dixon (“Motown”) and Joshua Henry.

For nearly three hours, “Shuffle Along” throws at its audience nonstop sound and fury and historical detail. It’s like climbing aboard a rocket that doesn’t stop spinning. With each round of tap-dancing, you feel as if you’ve been knocked out by a wave of kinetic energy.

But the storytelling is chaotic and choppy, and the characters are painted in broad strokes. The second act, set after the show has become an overnight sensation, comes off as superfluous. In an intriguing but puzzling climax, the creators debate whether “Shuffle Along” will live on history with a condescending critic played by Brooks Ashmanskas (who plays every white character).

McDonald plays it up as an over-the-top diva, while Stokes once again proves himself to be an outstanding leading man. Except for a soulful ballad, Porter gets lost in the action.

It should come as no surprise that something so experimental and ambitious needs more development. Had it premiered at a regional or off-Broadway theater, major changes could have been made before moving to Broadway. Still, there’s no denying its thrills and palpable excitement.

“Shuffle Along” plays an open run at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., shufflealongbroadway.com.

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